We welcome this blog post by Denis LeDoux, one of our NAMW Telesummit presenters May 15th! At his presentation, he will expand on these ideas, and you can ask questions about how you might want to present your memoir.
Your memoir can take many forms. What most people think of when they think of a memoir is perhaps the long memoir that reads like a novel. That’s how most memoirs in a bookstore or library read—or at least aspire to. A well-written novel-like memoir can engross the reader for a few hundred pages. The long novel-like form is definitely a great achievement for a memoirist, but it is not the only form that spells a successful completion for the writer and a satisfying read for an audience.
This post offers three alternate forms of the memoir.
1. The memoir as an anthology of your lifestories
“A memoir anthology?” you ask. “I’ve never heard the term before—unless you mean a collection of excerpts of other people’s memoirs.”
That’s not what I mean.
A memoir anthology is best thought of as analogous to a fiction anthology which is a collection of short stories. The collected stories of an author are usually grouped around a character or a theme. The stories are linked through sequencing that is often chronological or through recurring images and references. A collection of lifestories compiled in this way to make a statement can be an alternate—and possibly quicker— way of writing a memoir.
Is a memoir anthology easier to write? It may be because you do not have to concern yourself with creating transition stories or transition paragraphs. The long memoir seeks unity among its various components, but the memoir anthology need not do so.
Of course, the novel-like memoir—like every long piece of writing—is in some way an anthology of bits and pieces. Certainly as we compose a long memoir, we write here and there and everywhere in our story’s trajectory. Usually it is only later that we begin to order the lifestories and vignettes so that the ninth piece we wrote goes before the third piece and the first piece written gets placed somewhere after the eleventh, etc. To join these pieces, we write transition stories and paragraphs. The reader does not sense the chaotic order of composition nor does the reader sense how the stories were linked as indeed they were with much effort.
What I am calling a memoir anthology is different from the novel-like memoir. The individual stories have an inner unity, but the anthology itself does not have to. In a novel-like memoir, writers impose a stylistic unity to their story to give the reader a unified experience of the book. In a memoir anthology, the writer has no concern with that. In fact, the writer may even have purposefully written in different styles, and the reader, rather than finding this disturbing, may find it fascinating.
The memoir anthology is a great repository for stories written over many years that don’t easily fit together—other than they are about you or about a common theme.
2. The Memoir as a short book—or booklet
It is permissible and even sometimes the best choice to write a short memoir. People get stuck wanting to write a “real book.” Too often, people interpret a “real” book—a “real” memoir—as being a long book. A short book, for the record, is completely fine. By short, I mean something as short as five to fifteen thousand words.
This can work well when you want to write about distinct periods of your life without worrying about how to tie the various periods together. In that way a short book is like a memoir anthology except that it is its individual stories that are published. The short memoir, of course, can be published in a small hard-copy book, but with today’s technology, this short memoir is a sure thing for an electronic format.
If you are thinking of writing additional books, the short memoir will make an excellent “loss leader” item. Oftentimes, distribution media such as Amazon.com or Smashwords will allow you to offer a book for free. This increases the book’s downloads and so is an excellent teaser to attract a reader to a longer book or to a series. Your short memoir—whose subject matter lent itself to brevity—therefore can be an excellent tool for bringing a reader to a larger piece or body of work. Having said this, I also want to underline that it is perfectly all right to want to write a 5,000-to-fifteen-thousand word memoir and have that be the end goal.
My own “The Nice-Nice Club Holds Its Last Meeting” is only 7,000 words long. I feel it has an integrity that is not compromised by its brevity.
3. A third alternate is the personal essay.
The personal essay is different from the standard memoir in that the memoir is generally axed on story and character while the personal essay is usually focused on some idea: religion, money, relationship, art, etc. The personal essay is about the author’s thoughts and intellectual positions rather than the author’s trajectory through life. A personal essay generally addresses the reader’s mind whereas the memoir can be said to address the heart.
Is the personal essay based on autobiography an easier form to write than the memoir? I would not readily say so. Instead, I would say that the personal essay is simply another sensibility. Recently I read Somewhere Near The End by Diana Athill. This collection of (what I call) personal essays is marketed as a memoir—such is the great attraction force today of the memoir label!, but I would not call it that. Athill, who was 89 at the time of composition, writes about growing old, about her childhood, about sexuality in her relationships, about her approach to career, and so forth. The book does not attempt to cover whole periods of Athill’s life. We learn much about the author through the years, but the presentation is in not comprehensive nor is it an experience of walking a mile in the writer’s shoes. Instead, we are served ideas, but these ideas do add to a slice of the writer’s life.
My Send Off
I am not even going to go into other alternatives like the scrapbook or multi-media or the visual presentations to preserve one’s lifestory. Instead, I will continue to encourage you to think of a memoir as having many possible forms. It can be a long, novel-like book or it can be something different: a memoir anthology, a short piece, or a collection of personal essays.
I urge you to preserve your story in whatever form feels now most comfortable. Remember it is not about the form. It is about the legacy.
1. Look at the piece you are currently working on. Is it really best as a full-length memoir or should it be broken down into memoir lifestories that could then be organized in an anthology form?
2. Go through your computer documents and look for bits and pieces, possibly fits and starts, and ask if you may have in the shorter documents the pieces you need to create an memoir anthology or a very short memoir of some 15,000-more-or-less-word memoir.
3. Or do you find yourself interested in exploring your relationship to ideas? Perhaps you prefer personal essays which are more intellectual than the memoir but if based on autobiography, can be a more fluid form for what you want to share.
Interesting concepts. Presently I am writing, and almost completed, a memoir of my childhood as an Army brat. Although the book has some overriding themes dealing with discipline, child abuse, losing friends, changing locations and schools, it also has chapters figuring different vignettes such as my family’s experiences with the German and Japanese maids, travels to different tourist destinations, and dealing with the German peoples after World War II. The book is over 70,000 words and counting even though I and my writers’ group have done a lot of editing on it. Right now I am incorporating ideas from nonfiction books dealing with themes in military families. It has helped me realize that I wasn’t alone dealing with these issues.
Denis, I find these ideas so intriguing, and exciting! I have the snippets and computer files you speak of. Writing long-form memoir seems so daunting, and I much prefer slice of life, and your anthology suggestion. Very motivating.
@Barbara Fiefield, I was an Air Force daughter, and can relate to the themes you mention, and write about the, as we’ll. Will very much like to read your work.
Interesting concepts for sure. I once thought of my memoir as a series of essays on the process of grief. I organized it and presented to an agent. She told me to go back, see myself a the heroine and create a narrative arch. It was hard work but I think the work i better. Linda Joy was an invaluable help in this process.
She told me that unless I were famous she could not cell my essays.
Now I struggle with structure.
What are your suggestions for getting a personal essay of 7000 words published? Most possibilities on Submittable, for example, limit the word count to around 3000. I have seen a few for 5000. My short memoir/personal essay is about my experience with domestic violence. I’m very happy with the final product but am struggling to find out how to get it published. Thank you.
I, too, have written a personal essay of about 7,000 words. I am curious if you have had any success getting it published as that is a goal for my manuscript.
No progress other than refining my work. I still haven’t found a potential source for publishing or even entering a contest for a “short memoir”. Mine is just under 7000 words and I know it would be well received if I could just find the right home for it.
I am ready to submit a “short memoir”, approximately 7000 words, on my experience with domestic violence. Where can I submit it? I’ve found possibilities, but they all seem to limit the word count to 3000. I found one or two limiting at 5000. Mine needs to stay as it is. Any suggestions would be very welcome!